People in Your Neighborhood: Meet La Jollan and Hall of Fame swimmer Anne Cleveland

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Light learned at presstime that Anne Cleveland passed away June 24, just days before this story was to publish. A Paddle Out in her honor is set for 11 a.m. Sunday, July 30 at WindanSea Beach. Come in kayaks, surfboards, paddleboards or boogie boards and pay tribute to a great swimmer and friend.

While in her 40s, La Jolla resident Anne Cleveland rediscovered her childhood favorite activity and went on to become a famous open water swimmer. She successfully swam the Maui Channel, the Catalina Channel and the English Channel — both one way and round-trip. In 2004, she was awarded the prestigious Gertrude Ederle Award for the Most Meritorious Swim by a Woman and in 2011, was inducted in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.

In 2016, Cleveland was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and she underwent surgery in March. She fought the illness for nine months, living longer than doctors predicted. La Jolla Light visited her in her La Jolla home, and during the interview she opened her soul as she prepared to pass away.

Where were you born?

“I was born in 1956 in Alexandria, Virginia. I’m a back-East, Southern girl. My dad wrote speeches for the Secretary of the Navy.”

When did you move to La Jolla?

“We came here in the 1960s in the family station wagon. We stayed in a tourist apartment complex for a while, and I’ve never left La Jolla. Everyone else (in my family) did except for me.”

Where did you go to school?

“I went all the way through Scripps Elementary to Muirlands Middle School and La Jolla High, where I was on the swim team. I got to be the only girl on the boys team, doing workout swims with the boys.”

How did you get into swimming?

“I just enjoyed it. I always liked the beach and swimming, going to The Shores, where we lived. I got to meet Florence Chadwick, the great channel swimming legend. She was the greatest swimmer in La Jolla back in the 1950s. She inspired me.”

What does it feel like to swim in open waters?

“It’s gorgeous. It’s so free and clean. It’s just beautiful.”

What are some of your early memories of La Jolla?

“I thought the Children’s Pool was brilliant, beautiful. There were no seals back then, maybe occasionally one here and there. We children used to play on the beach, it was all little kids, we got to do what we wanted.”

Did you ever get married?

“No, no marriage, no kids.”

Discuss your volunteer work.

“I was president of the Town Council, I enjoyed that ... serving the community was especially rewarding. The issue back then was parking, there was a big issue over whether to have parking meters. Some people were very much for it and for good reason, and others not, and for good reason as well.”

What do you do for fun?

“Swimming, swimming and swimming in the ocean. When I was in the first grade, the teacher had us write a little statement about ourselves. Mine said, ‘I like to go to the beach. I like to go swimming,’ and that was exactly what I did.”

Where did you learn how to swim?

“There was a backyard swim service; they got a backyard pool and volunteer moms would teach kids to swim.”

Did you do any other sports in the water?

“Bodysurfing. It’s just simple, quick and easy.”

What was your longest swim?

“The English Channel (two ways), it was 44 miles as the crow flies, but they estimated I swam about 55 miles because of the tides, the wind and the current.”

How did you train?

“I did a lot of swimming. I used to do laps in the English Channel. I did some acclimation training here in the winter. I tell people, ‘You have to be prepared for the cold and the hauling wind.’ You have to have lard on the body, because you’re not allowed to wear a wetsuit, just the cap and goggles. To feed me during a swim, they would stick out a pole, and give me warm soup or something every 30 minutes, because you’re not allowed to touch the boat. You can’t get on board or anything, you just have to put your head down and keep swimming.”

What was it about La Jolla that made you spend your life here?

“Special people, amazing friends ... the flow of love and abundance I found here was just amazing. I feel so lucky and so blessed.”

Do you have a favorite color?

“Purple and blue, like the ocean.”

Please describe your upbringing.

“My parents brought out the worst in each other. They fought all the time. It’s a very sad story that I’ve fought not to make my own. My mother divorced my father when I was a teenager. I don’t talk about it much, I’ve moved on. They left and I stayed here on my own, I was a homeless teenager. I got by any way I could. I let it go and started a new, happy life with people around me who were capable of loving me. It made me stronger, it was like resistance training. It gave me strength to swim.”

How are you approaching this stage of your illness?

“Now that I know I have cancer of the pancreas, I’ve tried to keep a positive attitude to continue to fight, just like I did on the water. I try to have a good outlook and be an inspiration for other people.”

What did you do for a career?

“I taught yoga and I had a yoga studio. I was also a reiki healer. I had the pleasure of serving my community as a yoga therapist, one of the first, grandfathered in. I used my reiki healing to heal myself after I had surgery and I’ve outlived all the doctors’ predictions because I wasn’t ready. I felt that God had a plan for me.”

Are you ready now?

“I’m letting go ... I’m allowing God to take me when the time is right. At this time, I feel like I’ve had a complete life, I’ve had a good run. I feel like it’s time for me to go, and I’ll go gracefully. I have no unfinished business, no kids or grandkids that I haven’t finished raising. I’m closing out my life with nothing but love and abundance. So don’t feel sad for me, feel happy, feel glad.”

What’s your favorite beach in La Jolla?

“It’s WindanSea, and when I pass, I want my ashes spread at WindanSea, where my dog plays with the dolphins.”

What made you fall in love with the ocean?

“I just did. When I was a little kid I used to swim off the Beach & Tennis Club in The Shores and I went past the breakers, and that was my happy place. (To escape my unhappy parents) I would go to my room and read a book or go the beach and swim in the ocean. Maybe that was my way of feeling better. It made me feel closer to God.”

When did you find your spirituality?

“When I was a teenager, I was always drawn to it. It was hard though because in the 1970s and ’80s, we didn’t the stuff we have now. Things were different then.”

What’s your belief system?

“There’s one God, and we all take a different course up the mountain; we all get to find it our own way.”

Learn more about Anne Cleveland at annecleveland.com

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